Two decades ago this very week, Sylvester Stallone rode his Lawmaster bike into frame, dismounted, and brandished his crazy-ammo-packed Lawgiver on the silver screen while shouting at the criminals of Mega-City One. A slow pan glided up the actor’s armored body (including a ridiculous codpiece) to his helmeted face as he belted that classic catchphrase: “I AM THE LAW!”. That’s right, folks, Danny Cannon’s Judge Dredd is 20 years old! An adaptation of the classic 2000 A.D. comic of the same name (itself almost 40 years old), Judge Dredd is a film that should be remembered for a myriad of reasons.
For one, it helped kill the R-rated blockbuster (at least for a time), dropping on screens in late June and face-planting at the box office. Budgeted at $90 million, the film only had managed $12.3 opening weekend and barely scrounged up around $35 million total for its domestic run. It was bit of an embarrassment for Stallone, especially having come off of three hits (Cliffhanger, Demolition Man, The Specialist), and was the first in a long line of financial misfires for the actor. Cop Land aside, Sly wouldn’t find financial success as a lead until a little over a decade later when he finally revived his flagship franchise’s with Rocky Balboa (2006) and Rambo (2008).
Mostly hated upon arrival and still looked upon with a lot of disdain to this day, Judge Dredd‘s reputation still lies in a Cursed Earth of its own these days. Should it, though? Should we still spit on it and exile it from the Mega-City One of our favored film canon, favoring only Pete Travis & Alex Garland’s 2012 reboot, Dredd? Should it simply remain fodder for the mutant cult film fans of the world?
Perhaps, but if that’s the case, I count myself among them. Like many, I entered the theater in 1995 mostly unaware of the source material upon which the film was based. I went in merely as a fan of Stallone and a devourer of science fiction, so a marriage of the two could only be a positive in my eyes. My initial take on it was a positive one (I was 11), despite not falling head-over-heels for it, but in time that changed. Future revisits on VHS lessened my entertainment as I got older and when the time came to potentially upgrade my video cassette to DVD, I passed. I’d had my film of this campy, tonally wonky world and shrugged the film off.
I may have revisited once more a few years later, but my opinion remained unchanged. Hell, even my OCD nature couldn’t bring me to revisit it before the Karl Urban version arrived three years ago. For all intents and purposes, Sylvester Stallone’s take on the character was dead to me. After all, the then-upcoming Urban version looked great and I had finally jumped into the source material, so what need did I have for Sly screaming “YAM DA LAAAAAH!”?
I was wrong.
Let me preface this by saying that I feel that we have yet to receive a perfect adaptation of the comics. What works in spades in one adaptation is off-kilter in the other and vice-versa. Perhaps one day the third time will be the charm, but for now I am left appreciating both films for what they are. I’m not going to spend much time going over Dredd. That can be saved for its own anniversary piece on down the road. I will say this much, however: Karl Urban absolutely nails the character. Above all else, both flaws and highlights, that’s what the 2012 film got most right.
So what did Judge Dredd get right twenty years ago? Pretty much everything else, with a few exceptions. The production design is a slightly slicker version of what we saw in Blade Runner about a decade and a half earlier, which is certainly appropriate, and the special effects still hold up, coming off as charmingly retro now. Alan Silvestri’s bombastic score is also a delight, reminding one that he is still undervalued to this day.
On the acting front, aside from Rob Schneider, the majority of the supporting cast brings their A-game. Max von Sydow, ever the consummate professional, is a beacon of gravitas as Chief Justice Fargo. Jurgen Prochnow is his usual slimy self as the corrupt high-ranking Judge Griffin and Joan Chen is equally diabolical as his cohort Dr. Hayden. Diane Lane more than holds her own as the lethal and lovely Judge Hershey, saving Dredd’s ass more than once. Beyond them, we still have a generous helping of scenery-chewing characters actors in the form of Maurice Roeves, Scott Wilson, Ewen Bremner, Mitchell Ryan, and James “Block War!” Remar. What more could a cult film fan ask for?
Except there is more: Armand Assante. While he’s certainly been in better films, Assante will always be the evil Judge Rico to me. It takes real talent to be THE stand-out element in a film filled with dystopian tropes, killer robots, strung out street thugs, half-formed clones, cannibalistic religious fanatics, Sylvester Stallone, Rob Schneider, and the supporting cast listed above. By God, Assante does it though! Rico doesn’t just chew scenery, he tears through it like a champion pie eater at a state fair. When you can out overact Sly as he’s standing in front of you, you’ve accomplished something.
Even beyond the scene mastication, Assante still manages to bring nuance to the role. If Stallone’s Dredd is the epitome of logical stoicism functioning with machine-like precision, Rico is absolutely the yin to his yang. Rico is a flesh-sack of raw emotional and passion, exploding across the frame at every turn with so much charisma that you almost want Dredd to join him in his unholy crusade.
The film isn’t perfect, however. Rob Schneider is certainly a hindrance and while the script could have used another pass or two, I don’t fault the words with Schneider’s Fergie not working in the film. I fault the actor and whoever decided to cast him in the role. Fergie is written as your usual motormouth smart-ass criminal, and while Rob certainly knows how to jack his jaw, he’s utterly wrong for the part. Fergie needed a Kevin Pollak-type to work and Schneider just isn’t up to the challenge.
I already mentioned the script needing some work, at it does. Another misstep beyond that, however, is director Danny Cannon. Judge Dredd as a property should always function both as a violent action tale AND a parody of such storytelling. Cannon tries his hardest to juggle both, but falls short of hitting either. It still mostly works, but in order to sing as a project, it really needed someone like Paul Verhoeven (who arguably made the best Dredd-esque film to date with RoboCop) steer the ship.
At the top of the list of things that don’t work is Stallone himself. It’s not that he doesn’t work as a lead here. Sly is fine in the role as written. The problem is that Dredd isn’t written well here. The character is just off and because of this, Stallone is never able to fully inhabit the role. Many complain about the fact that he is helmetless for the majority of the movie after the opening, but that’s a minor detail. Sure, Dredd never takes his helmet off in the comics (at least to my knowledge), which symbolizes his undying loyalty to the law and positions him as someone who is seemingly always on duty, but that is merely a symbol of his dedication.
What makes him JUDGE DREDD are his actions and words, not how he’s dressed. And in this regard, Stallone’s version falls short. Too much of the narrative weight and exposition are placed on his shoulders, leaving us with a Dredd who feels lost and mopes around for a huge chunk of the film. It just doesn’t fit with the character and the film is hurt because of it. Stallone functions well enough as the lead of a sci-fi actioner here, but he fails to grasp the character itself, at least in terms of what is presented on screen. In the years since, he himself has admitted this, as well as the faults of the film as a whole.
The final verdict? Judge Dredd isn’t nearly as bad as you think or remember. It will never be considered a classic of the science fiction or comic book genres of film, nor will it be counted among Sly’s best work. Nor is it the best 2000 A.D.-inspired piece of cinema to date (that would be Mad Max: Fury Road). It is, however, still a big fun romp of hyper-violent* science fiction satire. It’s no RoboCop or Starship Troopers, but in the eyes of this writer, it’s better than its reputation states and worth a reappraisal twenty years later.
* – I would love to see an uncut version some day, if someone is ever given the opportunity to present one. Word is the initial cut was RoboCop-level violent, especially the third act. I would love to finally see Sly literally blowing the guts out of the clones during the climax and the ABC Warrior actually pulling Prochnow apart limb by limb. Alas, it is likely not meant to be!